Traci Brimhall, a published poet and professor at Kansas State University, has a new poem out. Let’s have a look. It’s titled “Rapture: Lucus.”
Posters for the missing kapok tree appear on streetlights
offering a reward for its safe return. I hate to spoil it,
but the end of every biography is death. The end of a city
in the rainforest is a legend and a lost expedition. The end
of mythology is forgetfulness, placing gifts in the hole
where the worshipped tree should be. But my memory
lengthens with each ending. I know where to find the lost
mines of Muribeca and how to cross the Pacific on a raft
made of balsa. I know the tree wasn’t stolen. She woke from
her stillness some equatorial summer evening by a dream
of being chased by an amorous faun, which was a memory,
which reminded her that in another form she had legs
on her back says she is, but sadder than the finches nesting
in her hair believe her to be. I am more or less content to be
near her in October storms, though I can’t stop thinking that
with the right love or humility or present of silk barrettes
and licorice she might become a myth again in my arms, ardent
wordless, needing someone to bear her away from the flood.
The narrator of “Rapture: Lucus” has seen signs offering a reward for the return of a kapok tree. She thinks of a contrast between the mundane or prosaic (someone dug up and stole a tree) and the mythical (trees as ancestral spirits, worship of trees, myths of people transformed into trees*). Understood in the former sense, the story of the missing tree will have its predictable end: the signs will lead to nothing, and the treeless person will simply have to buy a new one or live without. Just as biographies end in death, and myth is replaced by reason.
But the conclusion of our everyday, garden-variety stories is exactly where imagination — styled “memory” here, because the speaker wants to believe that our shared past encompasses all that is magical and supernatural — can begin. Read as myth, then, this tale of the missing tree is an invitation to imagine the tree’s metamorphosis back into a woman. “It” was not stolen. Instead, “she” wandered off.
Let’s assume I have that about right, though I freely admit that some verses in the poem remain mysterious to me. What I want to do ever so briefly is look at Brimhall’s mechanics. Please: know that I am intrigued by this poem and admire it. You know how much I love trees. I particularly like the lines about her being happier than the poem tattooed on her back and sadder than the finches in her crown believe her to be.**
Anyway, look at these couplets: “She woke from / her stillness some equatorial summer evening by a dream / of being chased by an amorous faun, which was a memory, / which reminded her that in another form she had legs.”
“She woke … by a dream.” I cannot make the syntax work. She woke “from” stillness and “by” a dream. (Is there some mistake of transcription here, by the website? Not sure.) But that’s not really my point. Note the anaphora — repetition of an initial word or words in consecutive or nearby phrases — of “by a dream” and “by an amorous faun.” For me, the piling up of prepositional phrases, especially ones beginning with the same word, is too inelegant for poetry and distracting even in otherwise good prose. Strong writing, whether poetry or prose, begins with variety (among a handful of other things). Why else have a language as versatile as English?
Anaphora again with “which”: you noticed that. (And what we call asyndeton, too, that is the absence of conjunctions. In prose, you’d write “which was a memory and which reminded her” or “which was a memory and reminded her.”) Here it’s not so much the repetition that makes the reader pause, but to use again this word, how prosaic the word “which” seems. It’s not a poetic word. It smells like a brand-new grammar-and-composition textbook that your teacher passed out at the beginning of your eighth-grade English course. It’s a washed-out word, weaker even than its close cousin “that,” and only an exceptionally skilled or lucky poet can make it come alive.
Does this better please your ear? Something like: “She woke from / her stillness some equatorial summer evening, roused from a dream — / no, a memory of being chased by an amorous faun, / a reminder that in another form she had legs.” (I’ve tried to keep some of the anapestic rhythm, short-short-long, that Brimhall’s original verses have some of.)
In college, I once submitted a story that contained near the end the word “cacophony.” To my dismay, the only thing that the professor — the novelist Jerome Charyn — wanted to talk about was how wrong that word was. How distracting. How just one word could sink an entire poem or story.
He was right, even if it smarted. I mean, there’s a reason that Vergil averaged about 3 verses a day when he was writing the Aeneid from about 29-19 BCE. It’s hard work. (The man I posted about yesterday, Bill Deresiewicz, notes that James Joyce wrote only about 100 words of Ulysses each day.)
Of course, here I am, churning out blog posts at the rate of 2 or 3 a day. Doctor, heal thyself.
*Note that in Latin, lucus is a sacred grove of trees. So together, “rapture” brings to mind the supernatural or divine (cf. the Christian rapture) and the theft (“rapture” based on Latin rapere, “to seize, to take away), plus lucus adds the bit about sacred trees.
**Congratulations to Traci on her fine poetry and her success with it. I want that said.